India’s top court has begun hearing a clutch of petitions challenging the constitutionality of the legislation passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2019 that stripped disputed Indian-administered Kashmir’s semi-autonomy.
The removal of the Article 370 of India’s constitution by the Hindu nationalist government on August 5, 2019, meant the Muslim-majority region is now run by bureaucrats with no democratic credentials and lost its flag, criminal code and constitution.
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The five-judge constitutional bench that includes the Supreme Court’s chief justice is simultaneously hearing a series of petitions challenging the special status granted to the region after its accession with newly independent India in 1947. Such petitions were filed before the 2019 changes.
The unprecedented move divided the region into two federal territories – Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir, both ruled directly by the central government without a legislature of their own.
“The case is before the country’s top-most constitutional bench. We are optimistic as we know our case is very strong,” said Hasnain Masoodi, a member of parliament from Kashmir who was one of the first petitioners challenging the Modi government’s decision, on Wednesday. He has also served as a judge at the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh.
“This constitutional framework provided a mechanism to be part of the Indian union. The abrogation was a betrayal and an assault on our identity,” he said.
Masoodi, who represents Kashmir’s largest political party National Conference, said the 2019 decision “violated every norm and mechanism” under India’s constitution and its “gross violation in letter and spirit”.
Soon after, Indian officials began integrating Kashmir into the rest of India with administrative changes enacted without public input. A domicile law rolled out in 2020 made it possible for any Indian national who has lived in the region for at least 15 years or has studied for seven years to become a permanent resident of the region. That same year, the government also eased rules for Indian soldiers to acquire land in Kashmir and build “strategic” settlements.
Indian authorities have called the new residency rights an overdue measure to foster greater economic development, but critics say it could alter the population’s makeup.
Many Kashmiris worry that an influx of outsiders could alter the results of a plebiscite if it were to ever take place, even though it was promised under the 1948 United Nations resolutions that gave Kashmir the choice of joining either Pakistan or India.
The Himalayan region has known little but conflict since 1947, when British rule of the Indian subcontinent divided the territory between the newly created India and Pakistan. Kashmiri separatists launched a full-blown armed revolt in 1989, seeking unification with Pakistan or complete independence.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and disappeared in the decades-long conflict. India has stationed more than half a million security personnel in the region. Rights groups and the UN have accused the Indian forces of human rights violations. New Delhi has denied the charges and says its forces are fighting what it calls “terrorism”.